Inside the Marriott test kitchen: trying Courtyard’s new Bistro concept

Several weeks ago, we were invited to Marriott‘s Bethesda, Maryland headquarters to meet with hotel executives and experience the “belly of the beast,” so to speak – the Marriott Test Kitchen, where dishes for the chains’ more than 1,000 restaurants are created, tested and perfected.

For this experience, we, along with several other food and travel bloggers, offered our opinions on dishes for the chain’s new “Eat. Drink. Connect.” Bistro concept, which was first unveiled 2007 and is expected to be implemented across all U.S. Courtyard hotels by 2012. At present, more than 338 hotels have the Bistro concept in place.

Current travelers are embracing the “grab n’ go,” quick casual model made popular like chains like Panera, Atlanta Bread Company and even Starbucks rather than taking time out of their everyday routine to enjoy a full meal. In addition, executives noted, hotel guests wanted customizable options, healthy choices, media integration and the ability to take their orders on the go if necessary. To meet 24/7 connectivity needs, the Bistro features recharging stations, free Wi-Fi, casual table settings and media “pods,” geared towards on-the-go business travelers who need a quick yet quiet space for an impromptu meeting.

The concept evolved from the brand’s original lobby design, which featured a large breakfast buffet setup that remained in place at any hour of the day. The new design will feature a central counter-style ordering system and a order and pickup setup, including hot and cold choices for breakfast and dinner daily, plus separate “shared plates” and cocktails in the evening hours. Five pricing tiers, maxing out generally at no more than $12-$15 per entree, ensure affordablity. Seasonal promotions keep things fresh and allow frequent travelers variety, while brand ties with names like Starbucks, Sam Adams and Stella Artois keep travelers feeling as if their money is spent on name-brand goods.

The goal? To keep travelers in the hotel at mealtimes, incorporating fast and fresh dishes that suit both their lifestyle and budget.

While visiting the test kitchen, we had a chance to sample a variety of dishes across the menu, including breakfast, appetizer, dinner and dessert options. Our biggest delight? Most dishes, even those that tasted custom-made, like a turkey burger and French Dip sandwich, can be prepared in under five minutes. Salads were made-to-order, meaning that sides like nuts, cheeses or dressings could easily be eliminated if necessary, and each segment of menu items included healthy items that still felt hearty – including an egg white breakfast sandwich, hearty salad with chicken, and falafel wrap for the evening.

While we weren’t wowed by every dish on the menu – the Turkey burger had nearly as many calories as its beef counterpart and lacked flavor; one potential salad addition had a cloyingly sweet dressing – the overall presentation, quality and flavors of the food were surprisingly good. In fact, the menus had more variety and generally much better dishes than their quick casual counterparts, adapting to a variety of palate preferences and health preferences.

Design briefs (including the video below) show an infinitely friendlier space, one where we’d feel comfortable spreading out and working during the day. Overall, however, we’re intrigued by the concept. While our actual dining experience took place in the completely controlled conditions of the test kitchen, the preparation and serving methods, which include quick-cooking ovens and mostly pre-prepped meals, seem to leave little to chance. Were we traveling in this quality of hotels, a bistro option such as this, with the addition of amenities like free Wi-Fi, may sway us to book a reservation here versus a hotel that didn’t have easily accessible on-site meal options.

Marriott provided transportation reimbursement for this experience, but this writer’s opinions are solely her own.